Access all publishers

Anyone who has tried to make small talk with an academic publisher over the past decade will know all they need to say is: “What do you think about Open Access?” Ask anyone involved in consumer publishing the same thing and you are more likely to receive a quizzical look or, simply: “This isn’t an issue for me.” But times they are a changing. And while the authors, publishers and sellers of consumer books are right to think that the current Open Access (OA) storm is being felt by  their academic cousins, the forecast suggests it may only be a matter of time before the first winds reach their shore.

OA has moved back up the publishing policy agenda, due in part to the internal “review” being conducted by the newly formed United Kingdom Research & Innovation (UKRI), set up to oversee how public money into research is targeted and effectiveness measured. There is a frequently aired position among the research community that OA is one way of achieving more bang for the taxpayer’s buck. However, this community usually believes there hasn’t been a fast or broad enough OA movement—and that publishers are slowing things down. The reality is that we are pro-access and always will be. Which of us ever went into publishing determined to stop people reading?

So, here are three reasons why OA is relevant beyond academic publishing and why writers, publishers and sellers of consumer books should watch the OA debate closely:

  • The policy direction is short term, and largely indifferent about the role of publishers.

Many proponents of OA don’t value or understand what publishers, editors or authors do. While they want access to content, they don’t show much understanding of the time and skill it takes to be accurate, useful and available in the ways they want and need. Content is deemed to be an inexhaustible asset. Furthermore, some seem to believe that all research publishing can be conducted “at cost”, as if making books for academics is as predictable and certain a thing as making pencils. There is no need to create surplus for investment when all that is required is the turning of a handle and the pushing of a few buttons—so this thinking goes. Rather than creating policies with a relentless focus on the outputs themselves, they focus instead on dictating the processes to achieve those outputs. What price academic and author freedom, and freedom to publish, with all of the flexibility that entails? And how long before this lack of respect for the skilled work of authors, publishers and booksellers starts being applied to other types of books?

  • The crossover between the academic and trade non-fiction market is wafer thin.

As highlighted by The Bookseller, there is a move that content submitted for future Research Excellence Framework exercises must be OA, and an intention that this would include monographs. There is a fine line between academic monographs and the “academic” books you might find in the trade non-fiction market. Policy development in this area, if exceptions aren’t carefully positioned, could have an impact on publishers that don’t see themselves as academic publishers. Compared to journals, books are conceived in different ways and for different reasons, written and created differently, published and manufactured differently, sold and distributed differently, and read and used differently. Pushing OA policy through the lens of journals could be damaging for books. The consequence of which are potentially significant for publishers, authors, readers and booksellers.

  • This is content policy happening outside of copyright - and there may be more to come.

One other concerning aspect of OA is the move to make content policy outside the copyright framework. If there is a public need to change the way academic content should be regulated, then this change should have been proposed, consulted and implemented in the same way all equivalent changes have been handled—namely, by amending copyright. A very similar issue around Text and Data Mining has recently been handled in this way both in the UK and at EU level. This policy objective has been achieved by following rules that are consistent with international copyright norms and all of the associated good checks and balances. Instead, we’ve let policymakers have a taste of content policy-making by the back door. We are now seeing laws around content, data and online media regulation being debated with all sides increasingly having a view on where private and public rights in content collide.

OA might have been the first time the UK has made content policy by working around the copyright framework, but I fear it won’t be the last. The desire for short-term domestic answers to the huge challenges presently facing the UK may make responding to other calls for free content, public-sector cost savings and more demonstrable output from taxpayer money hard to resist. If the UK government has bought into the simplistic arguments that content should be free, that publishers and booksellers add little value, and applied these to their academic publishing policies, what is to stop them applying that logic to policy related to other types of publishing in the future? Everyone who believes in a world of good books needs to scrutinise policymaking in this area and to challenge the claims that OA and other free content lobbies are pursuing in their dialogue with politicians.

If we do not, we may risk irreparable damage not just to the academic publishing ecosystem, but to content infrastructure more broadly and to publishing as a whole.

William Bowes is director of policy and general counsel at the Publishers Association.